Montag, 16. September 2019

Talking to a Legend - Wolfgang M. Schleidt

Professor Dr. Wolfgang M. Schleidt studied zoology and anthropology at the University of Vienna, Austria. As assistant and lifelong friend to Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz, he helped in the creation of the renowned Max-Planck Institute for behavioral physiology at Seewiesen (Bavaria).  In 1998, Schleidt published his hypothesis of a coevolution of humans, wolves, and dogs that had its roots in the association and migration with herds of ungulates on the part of both wolves and humans during the Pleistocene.  In 2018 he published an update of his ideas, incorporating recent insights into Pleistocene climate, ecology, and population genetics.

HundeWelt-author Christoph Jung had the opportunity to discuss these ideas with professor Schleidt.

Why the wolf?

Wolfgang M. Schleidt: I had the luck to grow up with animals and to meet them early on—at eye level, or—at age six—to look up to a friendly horse and cow. My first name, Wolfgang, helped me to feel at ease with animals. At my baptism my older brother asked: “Why is he not named Foxgang?” I will never forget seeing my first wolf—still exactly at eye level—at Vienna’s Schönbrunn Zoo. At that time (around 1933), a single old male wolf was confined to an old-fashioned kennel, originally designed and built in 1781, in which the “beast” relentlessly trotted in a figure-eight pattern. I was a “Golden Sunday Child”, born on the last Sunday before Christmas, and my mother told me about the ancient belief that those born on this day are blessed by the ability to understand the language of animals. I accepted this gift and carefully listened to what animals were saying. This gift became the basis for my scientific career as a pioneer of bioacoustics.

"We are not Predators"
“Why is he not named Foxgang?“ asked his older brother at his baptism. His given name, “Wolfgang”--nomen est omen--may well have been decisive for Professor Schleidt, who from early on was interested in animals.
Photo: © Monty Sloan – Wolf Park. U.S.A. 2018.
Exactly – you were one of the founding fathers of “bioacoustics” as a specific field of science. What is “bioacoustics”?

Wolfgang M. Schleidt:  I was a student at the University of Vienna (in my second year) when I discovered that mice communicate with extremely high-pitched calls. I was able to prove that hearing and vocalizations in a great variety of small mammals reach far into the range of ultrasound, and suggested that the well-known ability of dogs and cats to hear ultrasound allows them to hear the vocalizations of their prey. Thus, early on, I saw the behavior of an individual animal in the wider context of other animals and plants within its environment.

For me, it was always especially important to understand the evolution of a specific adaptation. What were the advantages of a specific adaptation? For example, my discovery of ultrasonic communication among mice was closely related to echolocation used by bats, which had been discovered a few years earlier. To me, it appeared very unlikely that such a complex ability evolved “from scratch”. The ability to hear and produce high-pitched sounds must have been in use among many animals for millennia. Wolves (and dogs and cats) evolved the ability to listen to what mice were talking about, which was important for them to find prey.

Thus, animals are in many ways ahead of us. But this does not fit with our self-chosen role in Creation as an “image of God”.

Wolfgang M. Schleidt: Well, humans are not predators, carnivores, adapted to prey on mice. The basic mistake in traditional considerations of the origin of dogs and other species is our arrogant and unjustified assumption that we were created as the image of god and given dominion over all other creatures from the start. Thus we choose to completely ignore that our ancestors were for millions of years of marginal importance on the earth they shared with other species. As recently as 70,000 years ago, the survival of our ancestors once again hung on a silken thread: throughout the last ice age, when hoofed animals lived in gigantic herds, and wolves and other predators such as cave lions thrived amid plenty, all of humanity was a minute minority, a marginal species, at the edge of extinction.

How did you become interested in the origin of dogs?

Wolfgang M. Schleidt:  I grew up with dogs and had been interested in the origin of dogs, and of humans as well, practically all my life. As an early student of Konrad Lorenz, I found his idea that dogs evolved from golden jackals “the working hypothesis that was best suited to open the way to one that can explain more details” (Lorenz 1973). This hypothesis, that there were two types of breed, the original “jackal-dogs” and dogs that interbred with wolves, the “wolf-dogs” (Lorenz 1950), seemed quite reasonable until Alfred Seitz, at that time director of the Nuremberg Zoo, kept golden jackals in captivity. Their behavior convinced himself, Konrad Lorenz, and his “school” that all dogs are wolves. Half a century later, genetic analysis has proven that all dogs descended from wolves.

“I always was interested especially in wolf-like breeds”
Wolfgang Schleidt had been teaching ethology in the U.S.A., first at Duke University, and  from 1965 to 1985 at  the University of Maryland, when he returned to his birthplace, Vienna, Austria as Director of the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Comparative Behavioral Research.
Photo: © Monika B. Schleidt
The ancestors of wolves and dogs separated more than 100,000 years ago (Vilà et al. 1997) or more than 200,000 years ago (Frantz et al. 2016) from the mainstream of wolves, and today’s dogs are more closely related to each other than to today’s wolves. But dogs and wolves are still overlapping, “trading” genes back and forth. Some dog breeds are intentionally hybridized with wolves, and dogs occasionally mate with “wild” wolves. The black coat color seen in numerous American timber wolves is based on a gene introduced by black dogs.

You have a special emotional attachment to wolf-like breeds?

Wolfgang M. Schleidt: I have been fascinated by wolf-like breeds from earliest childhood. I grew up with a German Shepherd (whose common name at that time was “wolf-dog”— Wolfshund). My friendship with Konrad Lorenz’s Susi (the prototypical “Eurasier”, eulogized in the bestseller “Man Meets Dog”) shaped my preference, as did our Norwegian Elkhound Irmin and our Husky Ivan—all unforgettable.

Each of our dogs, who were family members held in high esteem, were individuals with distinct personalities, so different that they could not qualify as a representative sample of “dogkind” for a scientific study. In my experimental studies, dogs were listed only once: In a comparative study of the behaviour of neonate mammals, published in 1950/51, we listed as our subjects: 30 human babies, 19 golden hamsters, 10 kittens, 7 yellow-necked wood mice, and four dog puppies (Prechtl & Schleidt, 1950, 1951). My interest in dogs as subjects of “scientific study” and my familiarizing myself with the vast literature began only after retirement.

You are most critical of the myth of ice age-humans as top-level predators and big game hunters?

Wolfgang M. Schleidt: Based on the nutritional anatomy and physiology of mankind, there is not a shadow of a doubt: Humans were not originally “predators” and carnivores, but frugivores who widened their menu to become omnivores, comparable at best to bears and hogs.

For humans, big-game hunting became a profitable base for subsistence only after the invention of long-range weapons (bow and arrow, an atlatl for spears) that allow human hunters to kill their prey at a distance that does not pose much risk to the hunter. Only toward the end of the “last glacial maximum” (LGM), when the new wave of African immigrants hybridized with the Neanderthals and acquired the skills and genes necessary to survive in the cold north, did big-game hunting become a profitable base for subsistence. But at that time, even with superior killing power, mankind was still a marginal minority compared to the vast number of other predators and posed no threat to the changing ecosystem during the transition from Pleistocene to the current warm phase we call the Holocene.

Our current “natural disaster”, the exponential growth of mankind at the expense of most other species, began only with agriculture, when starch, and a little later, milk became the basis of our subsistence. Meat became a luxury only the rich can afford. In our western affluent consumer and “throw away“ culture, we have forgotten that Catholics were forbidden to consume meat once a week, on Fridays, and that, not so long ago, “plain people”, farmers, and blue collar workers were able to have meat for a meal only on Sunday.

Did we learn big-game hunting from wolves?

Wolfgang M. Schleidt: When our ancestors were still climbing trees in search of fruit and tender foliage, our wolves’ ancestors, the early canids, were carnivores.  While fox-like canids were living on a variety of small game, such as rodents and birds, wolf-like canids evolved in a kind of arms-race with ungulates: the faster or more endurant runner wins.

These ungulates were specialized for feeding on herbs, grasses, and shrubbery of the vast steppes, savannas, and prairies. Some species migrated in seasonal cycles, as, in the present, vast herds of reindeer and caribou do in the Arctic region and wildebeest do in the Serengeti.

While some wolves established territories and hunted whatever lived within or moved through their ranges, Great Plains and tundra, wolves adapted to annual bison/reindeer/caribou migrations by moving with those herds. They functioned as caretakers, shepherds of “their” herds, as Meriwether Lewis, observing bison herds and wolves during his famous expedition with William Clark (1804-1806), described so well:  “…we scarcely see a gang of buffaloe without observing a parsel of those faithful shepherds on their skirts in readiness to take care of the maimed & wounded” (note: this is the original spelling).  Wolves were not regarded by Meriwether Lewis as blood-thirsty beasts that kill for fun, but as “good shepherds” taking care of their herd and living in balance with available resources.

These two quite different ways of living, establishing a territory and hunting resident prey or migrating with a herd they manage like “good shepherds”, lead to an interesting alternative to the common belief that “man the hunter” displaced the wolf as apex predator and, through domestication, made “the beast” his slave and helper.

The alternative scenario:

During the Pleistocene, when vast herds of ungulates lived in the “Mammoth Steppe” (the grassland belt that encircled the polar ice cap), these herds migrated in a seasonal cycle, with “everybody” who was able to move with them—a great number of wolves and a few small groups of humans.  During these migrations, wolves and humans (Homo neanderthalensis as well as sapiens) befriended and supported each other in ways similar to symbioses between wolves and ravens. The upright, bipedal humans had the wider horizon and bigger brain with which to “think ahead” and plot strategies for survival, and friendly wolves provided easier access to meat.

So, first shepherds and later hunters?

Wolfgang M. Schleidt: The myth of “Man the Hunter” is deeply ingrained in Western human culture, founded in the belief that God created Man to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28 King James Version).

Translated into a modern evolutionary framework, the first humans, descendants of an ape, were nomadic “foragers”—a way of life that has survived into historical time in marginal groups, such as Aborigines, Bushmen, and native Amazonians. Dogs, as helpers to hunters, were the first animals to be domesticated. During Pleistocene times in northern Eurasia, humans followed reindeer herds and became the first pastoralists; such cultures survive in the present around the Arctic Circle. There, in the context of reindeer herds, the first “working dogs”, helping to herd as well as hunt and pulling sleds, were employed. Subsequently, pastoralism led to the domestication of all our livestock in the Near East.
In our time, Bushmen groups, already close to extinction, became a topic of scientific study, and the 1966 conference: “Man the Hunter”, where those recent results were discussed in a wider context, revealed a misnomer: “Woman the Gatheress” would have been a more accurate title for this conference

Humans are not carnivores, like wolves and dogs, but omnivores, like bears and wild boars. ”Hunter-Gatherer” is a misnomer, because nutritionally, in all such cultures—with a few exceptions—the main contribution to feeding the family comes from the women’s gathering and small-game hunting. Men’s hunting of big game is a time-consuming “luxury”, and it is not only the meat—the game’s protein and fat—that is important for the family. Men’s prey is shared mostly among the hunters, and it is also important as gifts for neighbors and allies to maintain political networks; the family rarely gets a morsel. There is no support for the often-heard claim that the game the father brings home helps the growth and wellbeing of his children.

“Hunter-gatherers”, or “Foragers”, as they are now recognized in less male-dominant terms, had a very different relationship with wolves than initially assumed.  Wolves were their teachers for dealing with ungulates. For early man, ambush-hunting had been the only efficient method to kill big game, as documented in the case of early Neanderthals by the spears found in the lignite mines of Schöningen (Germany).  Observing, learning, and adopting wolves’ group herding-hunting strategies and tactics became the cradle of human pastoralism and started the process of coevolution that led to the cooperation between dogs and humans seen today.


Acknowledgement: We thank Dorothy W. Gracey, MSW, Dr. Michael D Shalter, Mark Derr and Monty Sloan for sharing their interests in wolves and dogs, and specifically DWG and MDS for reading and improving my English translation of this interview. Wolfgang M. Schleidt      

Jung, C., Schleidt, W. M. 2019. Talking to a Living Legend. English translation of an interview in HundeWelt 2019: 4 46-49
Jung, C., Schleidt, W. M. 2019. Im Gespräch mit einer Legende. HundeWelt: 4 46-49.
translation by Wolfgang M. Schleidt

Das Interview mit Prof. Dr. Wolfgang M. Schleidt erschien zuerst in Deutsch in der Zeitschrift HundeWelt 4/19. Die Übersetzung ins Englische besorgte Wolfgang M. Schleidt. Veröffentlichung auf Petwatch in der englischen Übersetzung mit freundlicher Genehmigung des Minerva Verlags.

Petwatch Blog